'They've learned what resiliency is': Football season ends early with COVID dial-back — and a few lessons

A sign encourages social distancing.
Two Harbors’ Mitchell Svir walks past a sign posted at the entrance to Egerdahl Field reminding spectators and athletes to practice social distancing Friday in Proctor. Football teams across the state of Minnesota adjusted their schedules to play games before the end of the day Friday in response to new restrictions on youth and high school sports.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Despite the fact the game was being played at noon, in late November, with snow pushed to the side of the field, and despite the fact that everyone in the stands was wearing masks and standing 6 feet apart — despite all that pandemic strangeness, Friday’s Section 7AAA semifinal still had the trappings of a regular high school football game.

The cheerleaders. The coaches. The parents screaming encouragement. And the players, playing their hearts out, despite knowing that this would be the last game of the year, even if they won.

The high school football season — first postponed until spring, and then restarted late this fall, came to a sudden close on Friday, as the state high school league squeezed in more than 80 games in the hours before new statewide restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 took effect.

On the field in Proctor at noon were the Titans of Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin and the Two Habors Agates.

Jessie Perkovich, whose son, Keegan Warmuth, is a senior for the Titans, said the year has been trying, but her son and his teammates have learned a lot.

"I think they've learned what resiliency is,” Perkovich said. “I think all of these kids have learned that, ups and downs, you just use what you have. And you can make the best out of it."

Arthur Rajala, who's son Aiden also plays for Greenway, said the team was grateful there was any season at all.

"I'm just happy they're getting the chance to finish the season off on a good note here and get the opportunity to play,” he said. “Everybody's just heartbroken with all this shutting down of everything. But they're just happy to get this last game in."

Spectators sit int he stands.
Fans, parents and family of Two Harbors and Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin football players and cheerleaders watch the start of the Section 7AAA semifinal's second half Friday in Proctor — masked, and at a distance.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Claire Vekich is a Greenway senior. She drove the hour-plus to the game in Proctor to support her classmates on the football team. The night before, she played her final volleyball game of high school. And even though the team finished the season undefeated, there's no state tournament to move on to.

It's just — over.

"[It’s] pretty emotional and sad,” she said. “We all came down here to support the boys because this is their last game, as well. And it's just it's really a bummer [that it] had to end like this."

Vekich also plays hockey. But now that season's been delayed, too. And with school moving to virtual learning, she says it's hard to stay motivated.

Two football players bump fists.
Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin captain Ty Donahue fist bumps Two Harbors captain Eli Schlangen before their semifinal matchup Friday.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“You just sit in your bed all day and do school and now we don't even have sports,” she said. “Honestly, I don't know what to do. My life revolves around school, sports and friends. And all of that's being taken away."

Tammy Svir said her son Mitchell, a junior at Two Harbors, is also struggling with distance learning. She says sports have helped him get by.

"Thank God they get to play,” she said. “He actually started soccer because it was the only sport going on. Then they started football, [and] for two weeks he was playing soccer and football."

Svir says he's grateful he had a football season at all.

Still, there have been a lot of challenges. Locker rooms have been closed. Team dinners have been cancelled. And as the virus has spread through communities, more and more players have had to quarantine.

A man wears a face mask.
Two Harbors football coach Tom Nelson talks to his team moments after their semifinal loss to Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin Friday. Nelson thanked the team's seniors and commended the team on playing through the challenges of an unpredictable season — and for pulling together when everything seemed to be falling apart.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“It’s kind of been the story of the season,” said Nick Edlund, whose son Kaden is a senior at Two Harbors. “Guys maybe just having that exposure, having to come off [the team’s rotation. One game, I think [Kaden] played six different positions, just because of the constant flux of who’s in, who’s out. Yeah, it’s been crazy.”

After the game — Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin won, 34-13 — Two Harbors coach Tom Nelson gathered his team for one final pep talk. Even though they lost, he told them, there was no place he'd rather be.

"I will take this versus sitting at home and not being here with you guys,” Nelson said. “It was a hell of a lot of joy to be with you guys today."

They never made excuses, he said, and kept fighting through adversity. Important lessons to carry them through in life.

A player runs with a football.
Two Harbors running back Eli Schlangen carries the ball during the fourth quarter of the Agates' game against Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin Friday.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Kaden Edlund agreed.

“We had a lot of guys step up,” he said, “this year more than ever, bonded, held each other accountable. Family is our motto. That's what we stuck by."

And on the other side of the field, Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin senior Keegan Warmuth said his team also learned a lot this year.

"We've learned that even when you start out not so great, you can you can always just pick it up and end on the greatest note,” he said. “And that's exactly what that score proved today."

Resiliency. Never giving up. Sticking together. Sports clichés — maybe.

But also pretty good advice for everyone, soldiering on through the coronavirus pandemic.

Players pose for a photo with signs.
Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin seniors pose for a group photo after their 34-13 victory over Two Harbors on the final day of football in Minnesota Friday in Proctor.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.